Bleary eyed and sleep deprived we tack south. Passing through the concrete slum of El Paso day turns to night and back to day until on the horizon the Chisos pierce the sky spilling thick shadows onto the desert. Pulling into an unsigned turnout we arrive at our launch spot.
I can think of few things in life that make me happier or provide a sense of total and complete satisfaction than sipping a beer at a put-in while boats are being rigged and I'm surrounded by friends and family; the air rich in anticipation of what is to unfold over the next few days.
We've come to float but a small section of the Rio Grande - summoned by the promise of a narrow sheer walled canyon, January sun, and a people-less river. Craft and gear choices vacillated in the weeks prior - each boat in the quiver was considered - from bringing the small raft, to (when flows started to recede) throwing in the packraft only to settle on the venerable and insanely versatile inflatable kayak.
There is always a question of why? The inquiring mind - free to ruminate in absence of electronic and professional distractions has much time and space to investigate. In this case the query is especially poignant as some in the group have driven dawn to dusk for the better part of 4 days (8 days round trip!) - enduring hotels and shitty food for a return of 3.5 days on the water.
Which brings me to my next point - Big Bend National Park is in close proximity to positively nothing - it is a haul no matter how you go about it and the question of input versus output is quickly verified in the face of the toil just to arrive upon its' shores.
But there is supposed to be this amazing canyon down there. Right? And the 10 river miles that it encompasses should be enough justification. I finish my 4th beer and agree. It is enough. Let's not make this more complicated than it needs to be. And with that we shove off.
The entire trip - put-in to take-out - is roughly 20 miles. The first 10 of which flow through classic high desert with large chossy columnar slabs.
Our zeal to make it to the beginning of the canyon on the first day is cut short with a slack current and a choice grassy beach. We decide we're already working too hard and make the call to camp.
Camp is erected as the winter sun hastily makes its exit.
In the morning - some have more gusto than others - arising early and scaling peaks while I sit patiently and await the sun to come to me.
There is always that dividing line - a moment - unique to every trip when time itself begins to pass differently. Maybe it is because in my other life I am (temporarily) living on the outskirts of a city of half a million - but I always physically discern this moment when I slip off into the back of beyond. The metronome of earth, sky, and rock seems to tick at a less frenzied pace - so much so that I often gasp a few days in, awaking in a panic, and wonder to myself "I've been away too long - certainly I have missed work, my absence unannounced." At its core, it primarily has to do with us letting go of that sense of control we exert on the world and in so much of our lives. Instead of the pesky annoyance of alarm clocks and the forced angst of long commutes we substitute in their place a contrasted dependency on natural rhythms. We put off getting out of the tent, waiting until it is sufficiently warmed by the rising sun where we will step aboard out boats and be completely dependent on a flowing river. Not enough water? You don't go. Too much water? You might die. This relinquishing of control - what our species so uniquely craves - is what makes the doing of the thing often so meaningful. I find much solace in this powerlessness. Though the concept may not be at the heart of our Instagram understanding of #adventure I believe it drives so many of us to seek out exploration. The loss of our ability to impose our will onto space and time itself cuts to the core of the question why do we do these things?
We wait for the sun to peek out from behind a rocky bee-hive in order to dry our tents and sleeping bags. We are in no rush and relish in the morning light.
We kick off from the bank under clear skies and near sixty degree temps bound for the entrance to the canyon we've traveled so far to see.
As the miles tick slowly by in the open desert it is easy to get caught up in expectation. When are we going to get to the canyon? Its easy to do - in no small part due to the time, effort, and physical distance it took to get here to want to take it all in. The day before talk over (cold!) beer turned towards future trips combining the canyons of the "upper" and a Grand Canyon length trip combining the "Upper" with the "lower" Rio Grande. A one and done. But I am happy to be here this time of year on a more focal point sojourn. All too often trips become about what could have been, what could have been done different/better - but Santa Elena is just half the river (on this particular stretch) miles and there is much to see in the braided channels and open country which proceeds the iconic. A place alive with wild horses, turtles, Great Blue herons, and an abundance of day long sun standing in fierce opposition to the abrupt January light found in the canyons downstream. In a sense - to know that which precedes the canyon is to better know the canyon itself and vice versa. The long form knowledge would be hard to find in the canyon bagging trip that is discussed. The partial intimacy lost for the generalized whole.
In the distance the "sentinel" comes into view - the landmark which indicates that we are closing in.
The canyon comes out of nowhere - an explanation point on the landscape as we pull into "entrance camp" - its gravel beaches an improvement over the cow and horse shit festooned grounds (regs demand you pack your groover and all human waste be packed out!!) of last nights camp.
The yard sale begins and soon camp is erected. Some, eager to move their legs, set out for a walk. For me the arrival of the canyon blunts any ambition I may (or may not) once have harbored. An (I'm sure) beautiful and worthwhile hike can be found behind camp - one which supposedly leads up to the canyon rim - but for me, I've procured a bag of cold beer and I want for little more than to watch the shadows fatten on the canyon walls downstream of my perch near my tent. It seems a worthy goal I tell myself, ambition is overrated.
In the morning first light strikes an open desert punctuated with the sudden cataclysm of a yawning canyon. Slowly as darkness ebbs blocky forms appear on the horizon, small buttes gradually resolve with the Sentinel towering over all. I tip my hat to the new day as fingers of light probe the earth creating a sculpted relief of wrinkled forms against the dull blue gray of the horizon. All is quiet except my small stove which heats my water. Soon I am sipping coffee as I saunter alone upstream along the shoreline with my camera.
Camp is packed up and in a frenzied curiosity about lies downstream we kick off and head off into the abyss.
Its all smiles as we sink deeper and deeper.
A few hours in we are jolted out of our idyllic float with the prospect of navigating the boulder strewn near blockage which impedes our path. We get out for a quick scout and pick our lines.
All ends well, snaking through the boulders. I would not want to be here in high water.
There comes a time for me in trips like this - when I glance up to the rim of deep canyons from the perspective of the river far below - that I try and place this particular canyon in the pantheon of those which I've traveled in my lifetime. I can't say why I do this - maybe its human nature - to always strive for some placement, to catalog the places we've seen. I often find hints of similarities; lower San Juan, Yampa, Owyhee, but in the end each canyon has its own fingerprint, its own unique identity that takes a solitary place in our collective memory bank.
The arc of my known world expanded - for I am used to those flowing waters that comprise a major river system far west of here - the Colorado. But like the Colorado the Rio Grande has many personalities, is mercurial, as it winds through urban centers, to vast expanses, to intimate canyons full of grandeur - all while navigating a network of dams, irrigation projects, and rampant human meddling.
One thing here is for certain - this may be the quietest river corridor I have ever traveled - an honor previously reserved for the Yampa. Does the border have something to do with this fact? I don't know, nor care, what current geo-political tiff is the current flavor of the month, nor what flight path is the most convenient to shuttle the work weary far south for a tropical respite - no matter - I am just thankful that the sky is free of elongated jet contrails and the low din of accompanying air traffic.
The winter sun being what it is leaves the canyon shaded for much of the day. Rounding a corner we find a lone finger of light touching the river left bank and pull in for a lunch spot and a shared embrace of January warmth.
In the early afternoon we pull into camp right across from Arch Canyon. A generous title, for other than the arch (shown below) I would hardly call this a canyon, more like a pinch in the otherwise contiguous canyon walls.
A fire is made and the cast is assembled, the evening social hour always so bittersweet as the curtain comes down on the closing night of an outing such as this. We take time to reflect. As I look around I find it hard to imagine Winter existing here. Certainly the summer, but for now the cottonwoods still glowing with the whisper of Fall stand next to plants freshly budding. Life is again emerging (but from what?), it is as if there is a direct linear passage of time from Fall to Spring. In the end I see this place as a touchstone, a buoying memory when and wherever I find myself hemmed in by the dreary dogged grimace of winter, the season which gives nothing and allows nothing.
Morning comes and we greet the sun from the river.
The canyon runs on like railroad tracks converging in the distance. A bend in its walls far downstream give off the near illusion that it conjoins to form some massive impenetrable head-wall.
Rounding the last corner however I see otherwise. As if ripped apart violently by some cosmic vice grips the congruence is broken, the walls separate as blue sky spills in like water breaching a dam. We have reached the end of the canyon.
We wave to a few curious bystanders as the canyon recedes as abruptly as it began. Surrounded by openness I again see the Chisos towering to the east.
As I reach the take out I find myself asking does the canyon make the river significant or vice versa? For me it is the latter. The flowing river elevates the canyon to something wholly unique. Flowing year round and navigable, directly proposing an alternative way to experience place. Maybe this is why I have a growing obsession to cast off on ephemeral rivers, those temporary oddities which allow for a unique form of locomotion in places understood fundamentally as something else - so much so that I have begun to eschew conventional runs. The river is the un-canyon to coin a term, standing in stark opposition to the firm resolute angular repose it flows between, its fluidity layers definition as it slowly carves this very place.
And finally, this trip has helped lessen the harsh reality of what I will likely be missing this coming year. El Nino has brought a variety of unique possibilities not just to the four corners but to other watersheds where long slumbering rivers are preparing to awaken from a multi year slumber. Escalante, Chama, Dolores, Owyhee, San Rafael, Dirty Devil, Bruneau/Jarbridge to name a few. It can be maddening to think of prioritizing these places, each person with their own personal mental list. As I unpack my boat, sad that the trip is over, I also can't help but sense that we have gotten away with something we shouldn't have, to float this river in January. I am buoyed by this notion as my gaze turns to spring and I listen for the sound of surging water appearing in the desert as thick snow-pack begins to melt. Can you hear it?